Chapter One: Our Temple, Your Tomb
"We took you right from
Your mother's womb
- The Wolf, Fever Ray
It had grown on me like a weed, this obsession to prove myself. I know what the other would-be tributes see when they look at me, the potential volunteers from District 4. They see a fourteen-year-old girl, a child. Some of them call me 'squirt', probably because I'm barely over five feet tall. Other don't call me anything at all, because apparently I'm not worth talking to. But this year, I'm going to prove them all wrong.
"Welcome, ladies and gentlemen!" Jehovah, the District 4 escort, is as upbeat as ever as he beams out over the sea of young faces he was confronted with – including me. But I know that this year was different. This year, I will prove something that few Careers ever can. Brute force isn't the only thing that can win the Games. "Now, we all know why we're here. We all know about the Dark Days, and how the districts rose up against the Capitol…"
I stand patiently in my section with the rest of the fourteen-year-olds. Another two weeks ago I would have been back with the thirteen-year-olds – not that anyone could really tell. I like to think I could pass for fifteen, maybe even sixteen – although definitely not something that's due to my height. I'm practically a midget. I fiddle boredly as Jehovah keeps rambling on about the Capitol and the failed uprising, before I focus my attention on Finnick Odair, the most recent Victor from District 4.
He's gorgeous, let's just put it that way. No sane girl in Panem could ever deny it. He won the 65th Hunger Games a few years back, and was only something like eighteen years old currently. He'd been only fourteen when he'd won – the same age that I am now. I've been training since I was ten, like most kids from my district. Most volunteered when they were older, stronger…bigger. I thought it would be cool to show Panem that Victors could be young, that not all Career Victors were six-foot boys who would weigh in at over a hundred kilos.
"So without further ado, I would like to call upon this year's girl tribute from District 4."
My head snaps up at Jehovah's words. This is my chance, and I have to take it quickly. There is no time to think or deliberate. I just step out and toss back my black hair.
Finnick watches me make my way up to the stage, but not an interested way. I can tell by the look in his sea-green eyes that he thinks I'm going to die, and that just makes me even more determined. People judge me based on my age and size before they've even seen me throw a knife. I bet he thinks I won't survive the bloodbath.
"Name and age, young lady?" Jehovah inquires.
"Elethea Ambrose." When I speak, my tone is completely clear and confident. I can betray no hint of doubt. "Fourteen."
"Elethea, if you would go and stand over there, please." Jehovah gestures to the side and I obediently go to stand in my designated spot. "The boy tribute is…Dominic Deran!"
Dominic walks up and I recognise him vaguely. He is a sixteen-year-old boy with sandy hair and blue eyes. Finnick watches us both intently, evaluating us. It's unusual for someone to be reaped without anyone else volunteering in their place, but no doubt Dom was the sort of guy people knew would make it. He's almost a foot taller than me and I know I'd nearly have to crane my neck to look up at him.
"Tributes, shake hands," Jehovah orders.
I turn to Dom and shake his hand with a firm grip. He watches me warily. I might only be fourteen but no doubt there is a fire in my green eyes, at least I hope there is. I am so determined, probably a little over-confident as well.
"Really think you got what it takes, Deran?" I ask quietly when I release his hand.
"Yep." The confidence that I feel is mirrored in Dom's eyes. "You?"
"That's why I volunteered." I give Finnick the approving once over. He is definitely as attractive as I remember. He was around six foot two, with bronze skin and sea-green eyes. I'm fair with freckles across my nose. God, I hate my freckles. "Besides, you're only like…two years older than me."
"So?" Dom raises his eyebrows. "Age doesn't always matter, Ambrose."
"Yeah, true," I drawl as the rest of the district watches us being escorted into the Justice Building. I have to be a little nervous about what my mother and my eleven-year-old brother, Medalleon, will think of me volunteering. Will they judge me, condemn me for my choice to leave them behind? "I'll still flatten you in training."
Dom just chuckles. "We'll see."
I mill around inside the Justice Building, looking up when the door is wrenched open and my little brother runs over to me. Joy suffuses me and I pick him up and hug him, well aware that it might be the last time I see him. Volunteering had seemed brave at the time, but now I only feel stupid, like someone trying to prove something they can't. Can I really survive the Hunger Games with an opponent like Dom?
He clutches onto me tightly, and I notice Mum follow him over. She's a serene woman who has hardly ever smiled since the death of Dad ten years ago, caught in a net like the fish he tried to catch, but right now she looks grimmer than ever. I wish that my choice hadn't brought my family such sadness and pain, and right now I regret it more than ever. I wouldn't have been chosen, I'm almost certain of it. I had chosen the Games, instead of the other way around.
"Hey, it's gonna be okay," I assure Leon. I understand that he doesn't want to lose me. He had only been a baby when our father had drowned. Although he couldn't mourn a man he'd never known, there was a sort of emptiness there, like a hole in Leon that couldn't be filled. "I'm going to win."
"You better win," Leon says fiercely, and I can't help but swell with pride. My brother is strong already and he is only eleven years old. I would never want him in the Hunger Games, but if he did participate, I'm almost certain that he'd win. He has the same sort of fierce determination that has seen people like Finnick Odair through to the end.
Mum watches the two of us with a sad smile, her eyes solemn although her lips twist upwards into the mockery of a smile. She has seen many of the Games – and knows how horrific they are, how full of violence and death. It must hurt her to know that I'd willingly condemned myself to this, but I want to prove a point…yet now it seems stupid, arrogant.
"You know me. You know I've trained for this." It's true. I might be small, but I have learned to use the lighter weapons to my advantage. I am fast. Speed is my weapon. I can move faster than most of the bulkier tributes. "How's your training?"
Being eleven, Leon has only just started his training. He makes a face at the mention of it, though. He's one of those impatient kids who can never sit still, but being told what to do when isn't his idea of fun.
I grin and ruffle his hair, before turning to my mother, smile fading a little. "Mum."
Mum can't restrain herself from hugging me tightly. She buries her face in my dark hair. I pat her back, slightly embarrassed. I think she realises, as I am just beginning to now that it is too late, that even if I do make it home, I will never be the same. Mum had seen the Victors, seen how hollow they were. I'd seen them too, yet I'd stupidly believed I could overcome any obstacle, as though I am somehow stronger.
"I'll be fine," I insist, more to placate Mum than because I believe it to be true.
"Promise me you'll come home," Mum begs desperately.
I bit down on my lip, tasting blood. "You know I can't do that."
"Please." Mum tightens her grip on me, unwilling to let me go although she knows she will have to. "Just promise me that."
"Either Dom or I will come home." I relent, unable to cause my mother pain even if it means I have to lie. We're Careers, so there's the high possibility that Dom, at least, will return to District 4. "I promise that much."
Mum smiles sadly and kisses my cheek, before Leon hugs me fiercely again. I observe my little brother, ruminating on how much I am going to miss him when I went to the Capitol…Mum, too. My heart aches and I want to say, let Mum hold me in her arms forever, but I have to go.
"Be good for Mum, Leon," I tell him firmly, falling into typical big sister mode.
"I always am," Leon reminds me.
"You better be." I try to sound mockingly threatening, but my voice is flat. "Don't forget to watch, okay?"
Leon nods fervently. He has no choice but to watch. He will watch me die…unless I can prove myself strong enough to live. "I will. I always do."
"You going to volunteer when you're older?" I ask. It's a common question around District 4. I think I already know the answer, although I wish I could somehow change it. Why had I made such a stupid choice? Had I really been so caught up in false thoughts of glory and honour and triumph?
Leon nods again, so vigorously I'm half surprised his little head doesn't drop off. "And I'm going to win."
I smile at his optimism. "Good boy."
"I'm going to miss you." Leon kisses my cheek, his tender affection surprising me. Leon is at the age where hugging and kissing is seen as embarrassing, but I think even at his young age he realises I might not be coming home.
"I'll miss you too," I admit, forcing away my feelings of loneliness. I hadn't even left yet and already I'm missing my family. "I'll bring you back some Capitol food if I can."
Leon grins ecstatically. "That would be awesome!"
"They look so weird," I remark, referring to the Capitolians. Leon and I had always giggled about them, how colourful and silly they were. We used to joke during the earlier Games, point out the stupid things so that we didn't have to get caught up on the death and violence. "You'll get to see them again."
"I know. I can't wait." Leon sounds excited, because to him, the Games are still just something he watches on television. They aren't real, not yet. If I don't come home, he won't really understand that I'm gone.
"You have to train hard, okay?" I persist. I am almost desperate now. I just want to keep talking to my family forever, so that I'll never have to leave them. I would talk about anything and everything, if only to be with them.
"I will." Leon nods vehemently. "I promise."
I gnaw at her lip as the Peacekeepers venture towards us, clearly intending to remove Mum and Leon. "I think I have to go and wait with the others now."
Mum embraces me tightly, swallowing the hard lump in her throat. "Try to come home."
"I will," I hope that she's right, that I won't let them down. "I promise, I'll do my best."
I spread myself across the lounge as the train rushes towards the Capitol, examining the two tributes I'm going to have to work with. The boy is the elder of the two, maybe a couple of years younger than me. He's got the look of someone who could do well, as he's a little off six feet and well-muscled from his training. The girl's another story completely. She's young, too young in my opinion. She's dark-haired and sweet-faced with a curvy body, but she can't be any more than fourteen.
"Look at all this stuff, Dom." The girl – Elethea, I think her name is – curiously observes the coloured bottles of alcohol that are lined up on mahogany benches. Dom stands beside her, but although Elethea's face is glimmering bright colours from the glass and rapt with fascination, her district partner is more reserved. Elethea turns to glance at me, noting the drink in my hand. "Are we allowed any?"
"Nope. Sorry, honey, you're too young." I have to admit it's an amusing question. Does she really think I'd let a kid her age drink alcohol? Dom grows bored with the display and comes to sit down on the couch across from mine, but Elethea remains where she is, standing on tiptoe. She's in awe of all these thing she's never seen before. Even the rich in District 4 can't afford some of this alcohol.
"Cool," she breathes, before walking over and sitting down beside Dom, green eyes wide as saucers. "What are the other Career tributes like?"
"Oh, they're big." I remember a little of what I saw from the District 1 and 2 reapings. The girls are both at least a few years older than young Elethea, the boys easily over six feet tall. They've definitely got some tough competition to contend with. I realise, with wariness stiffening up my muscles, that I've got to get some big favours in to keep these two alive. "Older than both of you are, too."
"So, is it still a good idea to team up with them?" Dom asks, leaning forward. He's the more cautious of the two, the more likely to sit back and plan while Elethea will dive straight into trouble. From what I've seen, of the two of them, he's the more likely to survive.
"Yeah, but be careful," I warn. You can never fully trust anyone in the Games, not even your district partner. Most tributes don't need to be told this, but most tributes from 4 are volunteers in their late teens.
"So, what sort of angle should we play?" Elethea inquires eagerly, joining in on the conversation. "Like, tough?"
"You'd be better to play a sweet angle," I tell her. She's got the face of a little doll, this one. She could easily play the cutesy card, which is one of the advantages of her young age. I turn to her district partner. "Dom, I'd lay low. Don't show them your strengths or weaknesses, if you can."
"Is it because I'm small and young?" Elethea inquires, but her tone is curious rather than offended.
"Yeah," I rake a hand through my hair. Her shrill voice is already beginning to grate on my nerves, her childish curiosity irritating me. "Look, I don't know what you can do, but neither do they."
"So what do we focus on in training?" Elethea persists. No doubt she's learned skills during training, but I highly doubt a girl of her size would be skilled with any of the heavier weapons.
"Survival skills," I notice that Dom is watching me closely, his expression fierce. "Practise with the weapons, see which ones you feel comfortable with and train with them, but don't give it all you have."
"What do we do in the bloodbath?" Elethea asks. Jeez, this girl definitely doesn't have a shortage of questions to rattle off. I suppose it's better than silence, although I can't help but wish she'd give it a rest. "Go for the Cornucopia?"
"Hang back." I shake my head fervently. "Sweetie, you don't want to get taken out. Let the other four Careers kill and then once they're done, go over and grab your weapons. Make sure you form an alliance with them when you're in training though."
"Dom would be better at the alliance thing then." Elethea glances at her district partner. I don't know too much about either of these kids, but Dom seems to be pretty laid-back. I'd rather he took it up himself to talk to the kids from 1 and 2 rather than leaving it to Elethea.
"If they don't agree, you should avoid them in the arena," I suggest, turning to face Elethea abruptly when she scoffs, tossing back her long black hair.
"I'm not afraid of them."
I frown. Maybe this girl is more stupid than I initially thought. Fear is good. I was only her age when I won the Games, and it sure as hell wasn't easy. I've had to deal with arrogance from some of these tributes too smarmy for their own good, and they usually die early.
"Well you should be. They're dangerous. You're stupid to think otherwise."
Elethea scowls petulantly. "I'm not stupid, but they probably are."
I sigh heavily. Another one of those kids who thinks they know better. "If you don't want my advice, then don't take it. I'm just trying to keep you alive."
"You won easy, though," Elethea says coolly, which makes me angry. Easy? She thinks there's such thing as easy? This stupid, stupid little girl. She knows nothing about how hard the Games really are. How could she know?
Elethea shrugs nonchalantly. "Yeah, well, you got given a trident coz you're a pretty boy."
"El, stop it," Dom insists, frowning across at his district partner.
"So?" I can't help but snap, getting to his feet. I'm normally the charming guy, the flirt, but Elethea's found something else. It isn't like me to lose my cool, but she's touched a nerve – a raw, bitter memory. "You think that made it easy for me to kill people? You think it makes the nightmares and regret easy? You really know nothing, Elethea."
Elethea tilts her chin up stubbornly. "I volunteered to bring pride to my district. That's what I intend to do."
"Well, you won't do that when you're dead," I respond flatly, getting to my feet and walking out of the compartment. There have been tributes who annoy me and tributes who made me want to pull out my own hair because they're so dumb, but Elethea is the first to rile me up – and we're still just on the train. How am I meant to cope with a girl so infuriating?